The authors work with CLEAR South Asia, hosted by Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), South Asia

As the world moves to ease restrictions imposed for COVID-19, it is increasingly clear that we will need to learn to live with the virus for some time and make significant behavioral changes. Governments have a difficult role to play in balancing public health concerns with economic needs and are grappling with questions related to how and what to open. Apart from these immediate challenges there is a need to hasten the economic recovery and build greater resilience to fight future pandemics.

India has made significant progress in the use of data to guide its strategies for coping with the impacts of the pandemic, a tool that will prove as useful for navigating the reopening. In view of its critical importance, CLEAR South Asia has been working with state governments in India to build capacity to collect and evaluate data better.

The COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever, has demonstrated the value of data in addressing public health crises. Researchers in the US analyzed anonymized cell phone location data to understand which enterprises can be ‘super spreaders’. India Observatory has developed a GIS-enabled dashboard to show the movement of migrants in real time and to identify relief centers on their routes. Moreover, governments are using data in different forms for contract tracing and isolation. Good quality data, particularly administrative data, can become a vital tool for governments to plan reopening and rebuilding the economy.

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Administrative data, or admin data, which is data collected during routine transactions, can be a rich and inexpensive source of information to generate useful research, especially when data from different sources is combined (e.g. mobile signal data and incidence of disease) for easy use. However, in developing countries like India, there are significant challenges with regard to accessibility and usability of admin data, especially when government is the data provider, which limits its use. Access to admin data for research use in India is largely driven by individual champions rather than a comprehensive legal framework or protocols to govern access, storage, transfer and use in a transparent manner. In addition, there are constraints due to capacity and knowledge in making data available to researchers in a secure manner. For instance, ensuring a secure means of data transfer, determining sensitivity level of data fields, meta-data documentation, ability to anonymize data at source are a challenge for data providers, especially governments.

Another barrier, particularly for government generated admin data, is its usability in terms of appropriate formats, standardization of collection process and quality. Digitized data in PDF formats or at an aggregated level are not very useful for research purposes. Often, codes are not standardized even for basic geographical units (such as districts, villages) across datasets in India which makes combining datasets difficult. Another challenge is ascertaining data quality in regard to its reliability and accuracy.

Given the growing importance of data, the Indian government is increasingly aware of these gaps. A data protection bill is under consideration by the Parliament. The government released data protocols to address privacy concerns under its contract tracing application Arogya Setu. Moreover, NITI Aayog, a premier think tank of the Government of India, has recently launched its vision for the National Data and Analytics Platform (NADP) to address some issues around data usability. While most of these efforts are concentrated at the national level, there is also scope and demand for capacity building at the state level (federal units in India), where implementation takes place.

CLEAR South Asia has been working actively with state governments in India to address issues related to access and usability of government data (both primary and admin). We have conducted customized trainings and hands-on workshops for government staff on conducting independent data audits and quality checks. We have also provided advisory support to our government partners on their data policy, for transitioning to digital data collection and improving the data collection/recording process. In one such partnership, the CLEAR/ J-PAL South Asia team provided advisory inputs into the design of a new data collection system that the department was looking to transition to for recording complaints received on their women’s helpline. Our team also helped the government with more standardized formats for recording information in the interim.

Going forward, as CLEAR South Asia center, we plan to intensify our engagement with state governments and other data providers to demonstrate the potential of data use and in the process strengthen the access and usability of their admin data systems. Our team will ramp up efforts to provide customized capacity building workshops, and/or advisory services on how to make data more accessible for research, strengthening data collection processes, instituting systematic data quality checks as well as strengthening its use for decision-making to address specific needs and help in course correction.

Through these efforts, we hope to support the government’s increasing use of data to inform their decision-making process and as a foundation for rigorous evaluations. We hope that through these sustained efforts of CLEAR SA and our government stakeholders we can build better data systems to help recover and fight the next pandemic.


Pictured above: Mumbai, Maharashtra, India,2020. Installing Aarogya Setu app on mobile phone under home quarantine. Launched by government of India for tracking prevention & testing of Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.  Image credit: Shutterstock/ PhotographerIncognito

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